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I went to see "Ready Player One" tonight with my father. He walked out, bored, and I followed not long after. Spoilers for most of the movie follow.

I found the book to be interesting but deeply flawed from a storytelling perspective because, to skip the long rant, the setting is dead and static and nobody has any creativity or ambition whatsoever but to obsess over old pop culture. In movie format it was fun to see this story brought to life with snazzy CG interspersed with live-action scenes. Compared to the book, it looks like there was an attempt to tie the quest in somewhat with game creator Halliday's past as a reclusive nerd, so that symbolically it's a quest to understand how unhappy the man was in his personal life and to "connect to the real world". I award it points for trying that and for all the pretty colors.

But... it doesn't actually succeed. There's an attempt to show nostalgia moving on a bit from the 1980s, eg. with several references to the 2016 game "Overwatch". (The story is set in 2045.) If anything that kinda weakens the book's theme of extreme stasis without actually showing people creating something new. What's this "connect to the real world" concept though? The quests of take place entirely within the game, and they're completely focused on the creator's personal life so as to continue encouraging people to obsess over a dead man. The hero wins by hanging on the man's every word as recorded in his "journal", which in the movie is now a CG library with obsessively detailed dioramas. The first phase of the quest has been replaced with a car-racing sequence that only makes sense as Halliday wanting to find an heir based not on virtue or work ethic, but on the ability to seize on one line of one conversation nobody else has noticed! At least it's not like the book, where what Halliday really wanted was an heir who's really, stupidly good at 1980s video games.

I also fault the movie for starting off with something like 15 minutes of narration. No, you don't have to do _in media res_ all the time, but this was silly.

The dystopian real world is interesting, but Evil Corporation IOI comes off as exactly that. It also doesn't make sense that all we see of their enslaved workers seems to be people forced to play this video game, not doing anything in the real world. The nickname "Sixers" is also lost on the movie audience; it was a little weird anyhow what with everybody prominently displaying what looks like binary for "5". I liked seeing a nod to the idea that game avatars don't have to be ordinary humanoids; there are some other critters running around. The movie, like the book, completely glosses over the existence of AI technology, and it ditches the notion of it being used for education except to make some brief mentions of there being an in-game school zone called Ludus. So, we end up not seeing people living in the game world for anything but gaming.

Halliday is still presented as a god. The hero kneels before his wizard avatar in awe. The movie makes the point about the real world being so terrible that nobody wants to live in it, which is provocative, but again I fault this story for having a hero who doesn't care.

Overall, it lost my interest despite the pretty flashing lights. Despite the attempt to write a deeper plot than the original book (a surprising thing for Hollywood), it still has the same flaws as the book. I left at the part where Artemis had been captured by the evil corp.

For comparison: I take pride in my own game-themed setting partly because the characters try to live in both worlds and make a meaningful connection between the two. It also presents a more complex setting because there are other things going on than the One Big Game (other AIs, seasteading, secession, fusion, spaceflight) and people have ambitions that are mostly orthogonal to how well the One Big AI does. It's also more upbeat while still having more specific problems than "the real world is a mess", and more adventurous in the choice of game avatars.

  • Reading: Astoria (a history of a Pacific Northwest colony)…
I only found out about this through that article. A friend showed me that and I said, "This looks like a follow-up to that Small Mammal Brain Preservation prize, but those guys have been suspiciously quiet about the quality of the pig brain they were going to do."
Then I saw this breaking news:…
Excellent. Judging from available info, the process preserves a brain in enough detail to get scans at the level of detail needed to view individual synapses. I don't know if that's good enough to judge even finer details like whether one synapse is excitatory or what type of neurotransmitter it uses, but it's definitely encouraging news. It's comparable to what's being done with this effort to do a high-res scan of a 1 mm cube of a rat brain:…
  • Playing: Into the Breach
HQ: "I've got a plan. Arty, I need you to shoot --"
Arty: "I like this already."
HQ: "-- the open field next to that city."
Arty: "What."
HQ: "Trust me. It'll knock the giant hornet away so it misses its attack, and set Leeroy up to punch the scorpion into that mountain."
Leeroy: "This is a good plan. But what about that other alien bug and the marker that says "AIRSTRIKE INCOMING"?
HQ: "..."
Leeroy: "Didn't you claim to have some kinda BS magic undo button?"
HQ: "That was not my exact wording, but yes. We already used it up for this battle."
Arty: "I don't remember that."
HQ: "Let's just say you should be glad to be here not-remembering what just didn't happen."
Leeroy: "City's doomed then? I mean, we can see people cheering us on from the windows."
HQ: "We have... more than one of those."
Tankred: "Do I get to shoot the dam? Please?"
HQ: "No, but you get to shoot the monster spider to knock it sideways so that *it* hits the dam. Now go!"
  • Playing: Into the Breach
My new book is finally out! This one is about Stan, a poor young man who encounters the game world of Thousand Tales and finds the growth and opportunity he's never had before. When the game's AI begins offering advice and asking for favors, Stan has the chance to make his real life into an adventure, if he can earn the greatest prize of all: control of his own life.
  • Reading: FiM Fanfic: "To Perytonia"
  • Playing: The Pirate's Fate
Tonight I tried a card game called "Quest: Awakening of Meliora". (… ) It's meant as single-player, though it also has a co-op mode. You are one of four heroes trying to do something glorious before running out of HP or encounter cards. There's a fan of 1-3-5-7 encounters face-down, with three distinct backs for the Meltwood, Shadow Caves and Crystal Something regions. You play the 1, then veer off to one encounter each of the next rows, then start over once you reach the top, so you have some control over which type of region to go to next.

Each round, you turn over an Event card, then the Encounter. The events are a mix of location-themed cards, generic ones, and five unique ones for your character. For instance I played as a Tarzan-like guy who had been magically merged with his T-rex pet, giving him the power to shapeshift. The events for him were things like "Growing Pains: take 1 damage" and "Far From Home: if you haven't gained X or Y yet, lose a boon." So, themed for the character. Some events I saw were "Single-Track Mind" (hindered me somewhat) and "Lore Journal" (a way to temporarily boost Intellect). The encounters play out with a dice system. You roll 5d6 and the dice get "locked in" to certain markings on the encounter or your card. Eg. a killer bat could be beaten with 2 Combat power, but gained 1 Combat each time a 1 appeared, and locked those dice in so they were unavailable to empower hero cards.

To win you have to win a quest. Two characters have a personal quest: basically "find and overcome all your dark and mysterious past cards", and "reach level 7". Otherwise you can find and complete quests like "beat a bunch of crystal encounters either all violently or all non-violently", or "actually beat that shadow dragon violently when it's super difficult to beat that way". Whether you beat each encounter is very random, a matter of whether it captures all your dice before you get enough bonuses to defeat it, and the difficulty automatically ramps up by raising the enemies' stats for each complete fan of cards. Come to think of it there's very little meaningful decision-making, which strikes me as a deal-breaker, but the concept of encountering various adventures in specific terrains with a bit of backstory and having character themes is a good one. The idea of a single-player option also interests me.
  • Reading: Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
Today I drove east across Florida to watch the Falcon Heavy launch from the beach near Cocoa, FL. That was a looooong drive on the way back; a horde of people all went there to watch, too.

Tons of people lined the road at every bridge. People filled the beach, all staring in one direction. At 3:45 Eastern I didn't see the exact liftoff, since I was looking straight north and the launch was actually a bit off to the west behind a building. But I saw it a few seconds after liftoff. Arced off to the east and vanished, with the first-stage separation not clearly visible. Then a few minutes later two brief flashes of fire appeared in the sky, and then twin trails of fire low on the north horizon as the first stages landed. There was a near-simultaneous double landing, with a BOOM BABOOM! hitting the beach twice, seconds after the landing. The crowd hooted and applauded.

I'm told that the center first stage crashed at sea, but still, the side boosters (which had themselves each flown once) landed successfully, and the silly payload is on its way. I'd seen a few of the last space shuttle launches from the beaches near Indiatlantic, FL, but this was something new, and I'm glad to have gotten to see this bit of space history in person.
The revised and expanded edition of "Fairwind's Fortune" is now out on Amazon for 99 cents!

In 2038, Gail plays "Thousand Tales", a game run by a watchful AI. In there, she's exploring an endless sea to gain aquatic powers and master the rare skill of combat origami. In the real world she helps run an ice cream company and is starting to see robots sneaking around the place, because the AI's plans go beyond keeping players entertained.

Her real and fantasy lives collide one night when she has a bout of extremely good luck, and the chance to have her brain permanently relocated to the game's world. Is digital heaven too good an offer to pass up?
  • Reading: Princess Holy Aura
  • Playing: Subnautica (finally 1.0)
I've just finished the PC game "Subnautica" and enjoyed it. (Enough that I wrote TF fanfiction about it!) It's a single-player survival/crafting game in which you explore an ocean planet, trying to find a way off of it. The feel of it is very different from the also-great "The Long Dark", because in TLD resources are scarce and non-regenerating, forcing you to move around just to stave off freezing and starving. In SN, bare survival in the starting area is pretty easy, and it feels like an accomplishment when you can set up the tools to have a secure, reliable source of food and water. The genius of it is that you're then self-motivated to go explore farther and deeper, to find new resources and information. When you find yourself lost in a dark underwater cave with 30 seconds of oxygen left, it's your own fault. The game gives you the tools to put yourself into scary situations and a reason to do it. The sense of progression comes not from raising arbitrary numbers as in "Terraria", but (mostly) from getting new tools and structures that do new, tangible things without arbitrary barriers like "only a Material X pick can break Material Y". Having bases of your own design in increasingly deadly places feels like an achievement, as does learning more about the world.

What's to criticize? Late in the game I found myself shuttling between distant bases, which became tedious even with my mini-sub, because I needed to rifle through all my cabinets for some obscure resource or to park my vehicles somewhere or build another beacon. For a game about exploration, it's sorely lacking an actual in-game map, so I often cheated a bit by activating a debug window (F1) to see my coordinates, and used a wiki to locate some wrecks. I didn't care about the "cuddlefish" pet. The grand Cyclops submarine wasn't all that useful for being a mobile base and I saw no use in building upgrades for it, nor in building torpedos. (From what I understand, the devs were influenced by a school shooting and chose to make their game nearly weapon-free because of it.) Finally, there could've been more done with furnishing bases. There's no mechanical reason to make more than a Spartan facility, but I imagine having a survival game where your ability to get clean and relaxed and entertained is important. This idea feels like a missed opportunity.

When I got to the end of Subnautica and it was time to go, I did a high dive for one last swim, for checking out my base, for ramming a Reaper on purpose, for nibbling on fresh kelp, and loading up my escape rocket with gold and diamonds, food and water, just for roleplaying's sake. I was a little sorry to go!
  • Reading: Princess Holy Aura
  • Playing: Subnautica (finally 1.0)
I go to movies to be entertained, which generally means trying to see things I can enjoy. "Hostiles" is a movie for people who would rather be made miserable. It's a Western movie that manages to focus 100% on guilt, regret, Indian savagery, US Army savagery, dead children, murder, rape, kidnapping, mutilation, arson, and trauma. I left right after the bit where the murderer/deserter condemned to be hanged is wrestling in the darkness and rain and mud in a desperate attempt to shoot the soldier consumed with guilt over taking human lives. "Don't worry," says the soldier afterwards, bleeding to death in the rainy and miserable night. "That other guy will bleed out within a day." And that was a change-up for the movie, because I thought that scene was about the other soldier haunted by all the civilians he's killed deciding to trudge off into the rain to die alone after begging the cancer-infected dying Indian chief (himself known for his long history of brutality) to accept his atonement for the unforgiveable crimes of the white man. Oh, and I left out the bit with the woman screaming in anguish as she claws at the hard, cold dirt in a futile attempt to bury her butchered family; that part goes on at some length.

Again, I usually try to read or watch stories for entertainment, if not to be made happy then to at least have some sense of satisfaction. On the plus side, I can compare this movie to "Cloverfield", which does a good job of being a one-note wail of anguish and despair.
  • Reading: Princess Holy Aura
  • Playing: Subnautica (finally 1.0)
Draft 2 of "Gleaners' Guild" is complete at about 87K words! (Draft 1 was about 13K.) I'm going to let it sit for a while so I can do a TSA-Talk Christmas Story Exchange story and probably some short silly TF pieces, then come back and look it over again.

This book will not be marked as part of the Thousand Tales series, so as to avoid scaring people off by being "book 6". The pitch: "Some players of Thousand Tales pay its ruling AI to surgically remove their brains and convert them to digital format, so that they can live in a virtual paradise. Stan isn't one of them; he's not important and he can barely even afford the hardware to play Thousand Tales the old-fashioned way. When Stan starts looking to the game for the growth and inspiration he can't find in the real world, maybe he and the AI can help him find a better life for himself. The game world isn't quite so innocent as it seems, and it needs people to do the AI's work." In this story the main character stays human (though his game avatar changes a bit) and the plot is a mix of what he's doing in the game world and in the real world. The tone is meant to be positive as Stan grows out of the moderately oppressive situation he lives in, but I worry it seems too depressing despite showing that Stan isn't being horribly abused.

The title is now inappropriate, but I don't yet have a replacement. The theme is growth, the setting a mix of California and the nautical "Endless Isles" world within the game, and the main character most interested in item-crafting and trade. The cover art is probably going to be… .
  • Listening to: Dan Carlin, Hardcore History
  • Reading: Something about immigration
  • Playing: Starcraft II, Badly
My new short story collection "Mythic Transformations" is now out on Amazon! This book is about people being turned into all sorts of fantasy creatures, from griffin to dragon to water elemental to still stranger things. As usual, a free sample is available. Ratings are appreciated on Amazon and Goodreads!
  • Reading: Godwin, "Space Prison"
Had a frustrating experience at a game shop tonight. I'd just bought the fantasy combat game "Tail Feathers"… and brought that, only to have to put it all back away because I'd forgotten one necessary set of cards out of the unreasonable number of doodads and tokens and counters it has. I'm now regretting buying it. (Also because the plastic minis are nicely detailed yet so hard to distinguish that they cry out for detailed painting that I don't have the time and inclination to do.) Afterward, I got three other people to play the pony RPG card game "Buck: Legacy" and had such a bad time we quit and I question whether I'll ever play that one again.

Looking back on my review of "Buck", I did notice some of its problems. It has confusingly written rules with nonsensical or misleading terms, heroes can get KOed by sheer luck before the player has done anything, KOed players get to sit there and watch their friends play, and if you do get the right spells/items it suddenly becomes trivial to be knocked out. What I liked was that sense of "being a fantasy adventurer rather than a collection of stats", and I still agree with that. I also still like the idea that there's an experience in between adventures, so that the life of a hero doesn't consist solely of the dungeon crawling, and dislike that this town experience is basically just an item vending machine. If there's going to be a competitive element it could be done in a way like "Dungeoneer", in which the heroes are cooperative but their players accumulate Bad Stuff points that the other players use against them like a rotating GM.

It seems like there's an undiscovered happy medium in between board gaming, PC gaming, and D&D-style RPGs. Something that takes advantage of players' imagination while providing enough detail that players uncomfortable with freeform have some guidance. Few expensive physical pieces. Simple rules. Something like... the Fate RPG but done with a mostly abstract board and cards and pawns, something like the abstract Piecepack… system but more thematic. At no point should players be eliminated, co-op or competitive play should be possible, and there should be the chance at a "legacy" game where a group develops its own unique recurring setting.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!…
This article is typical terrible science reporting, in this case about digital kinds of immortality. For those who don't already know this:
-Brain uploading is the concept of scanning a person's brain and creating a digital imitation of it. It'd be really hard but as far as we know, physically possible. It'd probably involve shredding the brain, so the original person is super dead. The resulting digital mind thinks like the original person, continuously, as long as the computer running it keeps running. Arguably it is the original person, and definitely it can continue to have new ideas.
-Digital memorials (my term) are a version of "chatterbot" AI technology. They involve scanning the most superficial data about someone, like their Facebook posts and voiceprint, and creating a superficial imitation of them. The memorial doesn't think in any meaningful sense, it sits there like an inanimate object until you poke it and tell it to say something, and it has no new thoughts. There are no grounds for considering it to be a real person.

There are people seriously considering how to do the first one, and the second one is doable right now. Any reporter who's going to write about this subject ought to know this, yet they don't seem to.

As :icongamer115x: noted on my previous AI post, a lot of what passes for AI right now is just "chatterbots", which are designed to read text and then spit back a reply in text based on looking for key words in what the human typed. So, like, if you type "Do you like Strong Bad", it can know to make some kind of Homestar Runner reference -- any reference at all -- without needing to comprehend anything else about what you typed or to have an opinion. It is just designed to keep a conversation going, and will tend to use non sequitors or distractions to hide its utter lack of understanding. If you ever want to test an AI for intelligence you should look for that evasiveness and lack of depth. There's some brittleness in a chatterbot too because of limitations in how it parses language. My favorite example from studying the Loebner Prize Contest was that someone typed, "My name is s t e v e n" and the bot said something like "Hello, s!" (My own entry was worse, though I was trying for more depth!)
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
Too much information at once becomes useless. I ran into that problem repeatedly today while searching notes and e-mails, and (the one that's been frustrating me all day) getting in trouble on Facebook because I posted "here's my book" things repeatedly and didn't pay attention to the "hey you broke some posting rule" replies in the flood of messages. "Al commented on Bob's post! Bob liked Cindy's comment! Alien ferrets have invaded! Dan posted a photo of her new tail!"

There's a market for an AI just good enough to sift through your notes and communication with language parsing to determine which parts you care about.

From writing and reading stuff about AI recently, including reading more of the FreeRIDErs stories (by Jon Sleeper and Jetfire and Robotech Master), I've been daydreaming about Things To Ask An AI for testing purposes. A good one: "Some mice were afraid of a cat. They invented a plan to put a bell around the cat's neck so it couldn't catch them. But no mouse wanted to volunteer to put the bell on the cat... Why would the bell help, and why didn't they want to volunteer?" It seems like that would be a hard puzzle even for an AI with a knowledge network that includes entries like "cat --eats--> mice". To the extent I can peer into my own thought process on that, I see a cat vaguely doing the action of hunting/stalking and the bell interfering with that. I kind of simulate a hypothetical cat instead of working out the implications based on a traditional logical proof. An AI that's almost but not quite good enough to handle the complicated thinking involved in an idea like "the mice wanted to weaken the cat because they feared it", might have to have some of the logical steps and details spelled out for it. That's what my story characters would call a Tier-II AI: one that can reason, "That thing looks like it's about to fall over and break. Those humans don't like it when things break. I could prevent it." Without grasping why they care.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!…

"Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour" is a game about a group of good but inexperienced witches battling demons. My initial impression was "What am I trying to accomplish? I have no idea if I want more spells, or whether I want to 'bind' or 'banish' or what."

First you pick one of several ugly anime characters. Then you get some black Corruption cubes. The 5-point ones are about 50% bigger than the 1-point ones, making them tough to distinguish, and I got one that was only about 25% bigger. Then you buy spells from a confusing pentagam market board where some stacks are locked, kind of like the Pathfinder card game, and get more corruption for learning them. Then demons show up and appear in front of you... and drain your corruption. Except some of them won't appear in front of you unless you have certain colored sigils open. Which open for you based on the next phase, where each player draws five cards (deck-builder style) and most have to be played with with a white or black side up. And here, the sigils on your cards open the sigils of the player to your left, and that left player gets corruption based on which cards you played as black, and you lose corruption based on which ones you played as white. And some cards do something special like activating based on lightning-bolt symbols on other cards.

Then you spend black cards' points to stun or kill ("bind" or "banish") the demons in front of you, or white points to affect the demons in front of other players. Then the unbeaten demons do damage by giving you more corruption, or destroying cards in the weird pentagram. Also you have a secret describing what sin you've committed against magical law and what retribution there'll be for it, and there's an overall mission. We played the intro mission where some special abilities were ignored but we'd lose if anyone hit 15 corruption instead of 20. If you're confused by this description, well, so was I.

Thematically, it's evil to learn spells, and it's evil to have time pass, and it's evil to battle the demons that are up in your face and presumably trying to eat your soul. It's good to battle other people's demons and... that's it really. The "secret" cards also say that it's evil to hurt people with magic, to worship a god besides Gaia, or to use it for popularity or wealth or luck or love or to have a forbidden familiar or to read the Necronomicon or to consort with warlocks. Okay, so if I want to play a good witch who helps others, I need to play my cards' white side as often as possible, right? I get cool white spells with names like Light Orb and Light Potential and Fey Wit. They mostly give you zero points of white mana to help people, versus around 1-3 for typical black spells. You can buy better spells to add to your deck, but again, (1) the black version is probably better and (2) it's evil and corrupting just to buy access to the spell. White magic stinks. So this is a game that makes me feel like getting magical powers would be an unequivocally bad thing.

Compare this game to "The Big Book of Madness". I liked some aspects of that game but faulted it for making the battling of monsters feel like a shopping trip, where you spend a known quantity of abstract resources for a certain result. Here, again, banishing a demon consists of spending X points worth of Y-flavored mana rather than some kind of awesome mage-fight with decision-making or risk. There's such a big punishment for buying new spells that this is a game about magic, where you're discouraged from learning magic. (In BBoM, you're subtly encouraged to buy new spells even if you don't care about them, just to make the next one in each stack appear.) The whole flow of corruption feels confusing and non-thematic, since you lose it when demons appear (because they're, like, using yours to enter reality?) but then they give you more and you get more just by defeating them. The whole sigil concept is underused, since there're these six colored symbols that get locked and unlocked but their only purpose seems to be to affect exactly which demons come after you each round. The deck-building aspect is also underused, because of that cost to buy cards.

I like that there's a story implied by the series of missions, but if you read the excerpts I skimmed in the manual, it basically says outright that you're doomed from the start and your friendly cat-familiar instructor is a demon who trains up and destroys parties of witches over and over. So overall, my two big complaints are how un-fun the premise is, making the whole "band of magic users fighting evil" concept feel like a joyless Lovecraftian slog -- in contrast to BBoM, which has the same premise! -- and mechanics that seem to discourage the very thing you're there to do and that don't really make sense given the theme.

Verdict: Would not play again.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
Played two board games tonight and another new one a few weeks ago.
The party is a gang of monster hunters. Our designated final boss was an evil spider with the rule, "Any hunter who dies twice is eliminated from the game." This is a game where it's expected that you'll die a lot. You have 8 hit points and monsters can do greatly varying damage; several weapons for the heroes are designed to make your "allies" lose HP too. In our case we got the high side of "greatly varying" and the entire party died on turn 2. Then a few turns later, I misjudged when to rest and took 4 HP damage at once, eliminating me. Well, that was quick!

The Big Book of Madness:
You're students at what is obviously Hogwarts (down to the scarves and fonts) and have foolishly opened one of those cursed tomes. Now you must build up your powers while fending off the monsters' curses. This is a co-op deck-building game in which you start with a specific character aligned with one of the four elements and a slightly themed deck of various element cards rated 1-3 points. You spend these each turn to buy better element cards, or buy spells, or cast spells, or pump energy into defeating the various monster curses (eg. "put 4 Air tokens on this by X time or Bad Thing Y happens"). The spells are interesting things like "spend 1 Water to put a card into reserve for later" or "spend 3 Earth to cause an earthquake that destroys all Madness cards in anyone's reserve pool". Nice use of theming, and the rules encourage you to specialize. I went with being a Water/Air specialist. Still I felt like there could've been a stronger sense of actually doing things, because "I buy a 3-Water card with these 3 points of Water" or "I spend 2 Air to put 2 tokens on that curse card" feels too abstract.

The Madness system is pretty standard deck-building: you get useless cards that get stuck in your deck. Worse, they actually can't leave your hand by default, and a full hand of them kills you off. There are a bunch of powers for either temporarily discarding them, destroying them (better, but depletes a supply that kills everyone if it runs out) or curing them (returning them to the supply). I thought that was a neat idea with various gameplay effects, like using a spell to reset someone's deck without them gaining Madness for shuffling. Unfortunately, destroying cards is really easy with the basic Fire spell and the way we played, there were a ton of Madness cards in the supply, so there was little point in fancy powers for handling them.

Unfortunately we were also playing this the wrong way; the game's owner is someone who doesn't seem to have a good grasp on the rules of her own games. (Imagine what happened when we tried to play "Pandemic" and she insisted on adding the "In the Lab" expansion that makes the cure-seeking process much more complicated.) So we had the curses/monsters advancing once per complete round instead of once per player turn, ie. 1/4 speed, and it was like "Harry Potter" if the villains didn't start showing up until year 3 or so. Still, I enjoyed the sense of building up magic power and specialties. There probably could've been done more with the sense of learning and fighting, partly because fighting monsters consists entirely of filling up the curse cards with tokens. I'd play again with the proper difficulty rules.

Also: Tiny Epic Western:
From the makers of "Tiny Epic Kingdoms", a cleverly designed, small, cheap game I own. In this one you're buying buildings in a tiny (epic) Western town with a "worker placement" mechanic. Meaning, you have 2-3 wooden dudes you can place in various spots to harvest resources or do some other action, based on which site you put them on. The gimmick is that your workers get into gunfights whenever they have to share a space. On one hand you want to pick sites that nobody else wants, to be sure you don't get your dudes shot and their actions negated... but several rules encourage you to pick fights anyway. For one thing, whoever's won the most recent fight at certain points gets free resources. (In contrast, a supposedly pirate-themed game I once played seemed to have no reason for you to ever fight other players.) Then, you spend resources to get buildings. You can only have one usable on your property at a time (the most recent on you bought), and the buildings are themselves sites that your dudes can visit to do things.

This game is a great example of theming. The resources are Gold, Law and Force. The buildings are all things like saloons and telegraph offices. The "dice" are bullet-shaped. Gratuitous gunfights are encouraged. Most interesting is that there are mini-poker cards placed between the buildings, face-down (once we knew what we were doing) and each player has one. The ranks are 1-5 and you form hands in a fashion similar to Texas Hold'em using the cards next to a location you're interacting with. There's a gambling aspect involved in everything you do, from using your cards to gain resources to investing in particular symbols on the buildings you buy, not knowing in advance which will be the most valuable. Yet it's not totally chaotic like Fluxx because you have some sense of who's winning and there's a fairly clear goal. I'd definitely play this again.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
The expedition was going poorly due to bad luck. The crew were dispirited and exhausted. Then we reached a village, where the locals attacked us not with spears but with encouraging words and smiles. My crew got cheered up so much they decided to stay for an "indefinite vacation".

On the second attempt, we had much better luck, but I committed a cultural faux pas that I really should've seen coming. (Not a bad random roll, but a bad decision.) At least I got extra supplies out of it. We'd traveled around enough to have multiple encounters with the natives, which gave everybody a boost to their conversation skills. Yvonne had misgivings, though, because I'd stolen a mask and she felt bad about it. When we reached the overly friendly village, this time we dazzled and praised them until the grumpy chieftain gave us a treasure to go away. Winning in a friendly way had different effects than devious or violent approaches would've had. At no point in either attempt had we hit another person, although we severely hurt the feelings of some scorpions.

I have fought hundreds, maybe thousands of fantasy battles where the assumption is that slaughtering all in my path is the only victory. I'd like to go back and try "Fallout 4" again to remind myself that 90% of that world consists of people with names like "RAIDER SCUM" who exist to have their heads blown off. Why haven't games like "Renowned Explorers" (and of course "Undertale") been around for decades?

About "The Curious Expedition": I bought this as a bundle with RE. It's on the same exploration theme, to the point of having you do around 5 expeditions and competing with other explorers. (Though RE beats you over the head with the competition part; the villain is a Frenchman named Rivaleux.) "Curious Expedition" uses a hex map where most tiles are empty and the main mechanic is spending time and sanity (!) on movement. Combat is purely dice-based, and I don't think I've ever done more than one point of damage out of 8 or so needed to kill a bear. The goal of every expedition, to anywhere, is to find a golden pyramid. Along the way there's always a temple where taking the treasure sets off a trap that starts destroying nearby tiles. The character skills and interaction seem very basic, eg. I had a guy leave because he's an alcoholic and we ran out of booze. The exploration mostly consists of moving across the empty map, so it doesn't feel like I'm accomplishing much, and the characters don't have specific skills beyond a rare dice-roll mechanic. So, I can't recommend this one as much even though it's superficially very similar.
It's interesting how two similar games can play so differently.
  • Reading: Geusz, "Angry Byrd"
  • Playing: Renowned Explorers
In short: Save your money, find a rusty girder, and just stare at that for two and a half hours.

"Blade Runner: 2049" is, if you're too young to have seen the original, about a slave race of "replicants" who're hunted down and murdered because humans are jerks. Humans cleverly designed them to be almost impossible to ID despite the entire premise of enslaving them being that they're distinctly non-human. A few decades after the original movie, Los Angeles has gone from the very Japanese neon skyscraper world of the distant 2010s to a bleak and utterly dead ruin with a few neighborhoods that look inhabited and neon-y. After some replicant uprisings, humans banned them, then went right back to making more under a different bleak, amoral megacorporation.

Who's the hero? The lead is a serial number replicant that I'll call K, who kills replicants because it's his job. When he does one of these killings, he very slowly realizes that at one point a replicant got pregnant, which is such shocking news that it could cause another revolution. Then he very slowly tracks down the missing child who might've survived, gets evidence that it's actually himself, and then leads the movie through another half-hour of him realizing this. (Eg., a shot of a factory. He walks through the factory. He sees some furnaces. He slowly approaches. He slowly crouches. He slowly reaches into the idle furnace...) Then he gradually learns that no it's actually not him.

Who's he fighting? There's his police chief boss who wants to suppress knowledge of Repli-Baby at any cost, and the emotionless replicant "angel" serving the equally empty boss of Soulless Corporation #2. SC#2's goal is to find Repli-Baby to study it and learn how to make replicants reproduce the traditional way, just because the production rates right now are lower than the CEO would like and that's their only solution. Then there's a faction of replicants who've known about Repli-Baby for decades, so that the police chief's concerns are pointless, and who want to rise up because they know they can (in one known case) reproduce, which is exactly the thing SC#2 wants to help them to do. The rebellion plot goes nowhere anyway. Neither does the hero's personal story, since he chooses to drop dead pointlessly in the end because he's resolved somebody else's plotline.

Then there's Harrison Ford, who shows up around 3/4 of the way through the movie and gets into a gun/fistfight for ten minutes or so with K. Why? It's completely pointless, because they have no reason to be fighting and it ends with Ford's character literally just saying "we could keep at this or get a drink". I guess the point is to give us some action? He's actually Repli-Baby's father and he's been hanging out in a ruined casino with no food for decades, doing utterly nothing.

The climax takes place on a grey metal slope in heavy rain. Seriously; it's dark and wet and sloped metal and that's all there is to it, as K and SC#2's Angel punch and stab and drown each other until somebody dies. The movie manages to make this death battle boring, because I don't care about these characters and their actions don't seem to matter. That's partly due to unclear goals -- do the revolutionaries or SC#2 win if news of Repli-Baby gets out? -- and partly due to Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy. Literally, this movie is so dark that it's tough to tell what's going on sometimes. When there's better lighting, the sets are like lines of poetry... and I mean that in a bad way, because they're almost all extremely sparse. several scenes take place in "a tan room" or "a big tan room with kind of a curved ceiling and dim rippling light" or "a white dome". The director is so in love with his clever visual poetry that he lingers and lingers on every detail. For instance there's a sequence of around 11 camera shots that go like: "In silence, a man walks through a desert. The desert is bleak. There is a statue. It's a statue of a woman. The man walks. There's something in the distance. It is bees. The man walks up to a beehive. He inserts his hand. Now there are bees on his hand. He walks along." What's the significance of the bees? Nothing! There aren't any damn living plants visible in this entire movie!

A great deal is made out of the fact that now there are AIs using holograms that can interact with solid matter (except when they can't; compare the rain-on-hands scene with the prostitute scene). If there are advanced AIs, then the entire premise of replicants becomes pointless! There's also a big deal made out of replicants having false, implanted memories of being human children. Despite the entire premise of the story being that humans really want the replicants to be different and inferior. Why keep the replicants' status basically identical to the original movie's? I guess, to try to make money by selling tickets to people who liked the original or "heard it was good and had Harrison Ford in it".

In short, the storytelling is lazy, incredibly slow-paced, and illogical, the sets are ugly and bleak and depressing to the point that I don't care who wins or what they're fighting over, the time period of the setting is already outdated by real-world events, and the director left so much empty space that you could recite "The World's Longest Joke" during the slow, silent parts and have a better time watching this. There was a preview for the "Ready Player One" movie, which also relies heavily on 1980s nostalgia. I already reviewed the book as being bleak and overly simplistic because the hero has no meaningful goal and exactly one thing is taking place in the setting. But still, I somewhat enjoyed that story. I can't say the same about "Blade Runner: 2049", and I can't even honestly say it'd be a decent movie with half an hour cut out.

Oh, and I left out the scene where SC#2's CEO creates a naked replicant woman and then stabs her for no reason, apparently just to give him a scene where he can give a creepy monologue explaining that he's frustrated with the company's low production rate. Jeez, dude, if you're destroying the merchandise every time you explain something no wonder you're not making quota.
  • Reading: Always Gray In Winter
  • Playing: Infra, Part 3
Engels' "Always Gray In Winter"… is about a clan of were-cats in the modern world, who try to kidnap a scientist and steal his research into their "Affliction". The attempted theft is part of a fight between a Polish/North Korean alliance and a Polish-American family, whose daughter Pawly went missing for years and who's just been rescued/kidnapped by her family's friends. The story is advertised as military SF, but the focus is really on the family and friend relationships as the characters converge on the stolen gadget that can help the were-folk.

I had trouble juggling the names of the characters. Sometimes it's simply because of switching between someone's first and last name, as with Manuel Latharo who's called Latharo by the narration until suddenly he's called Manuel, or Natan "Nat" Opoworo and Nikodemos "Niko" Opoworo who are also both called Opoworo. Sometimes it's a character speaking a name with an accent, as with Tommy/Tomasz. On p.130 it's because of a nickname, an actual name change and a similarly named character in the same scene. I had to go back and reread that part before deciding that of four names on the page, Milda, Milena and Lena are one person but Ewelina is another.

The story flips between several viewpoints: Pawly, Hana, Niko, Lenny, Dory, Mawro, Alex, and more. (The fact that these are similar-sounding androgynous syllable pairs is a subtle problem too.) Since their various flashbacks also add a shift of time and place, I sometimes got lost. On p.54 in particular, a flashback is introduced in a park, like so:

"A flicker of light caught his eye. Lenny glanced up to view a bright white void swallow up the children, the playground and everything else before the shock wave slammed into him. He flew over the back of the bench into the air. His arms and legs flailed about until he impacted the bulkhead behind him... he slumped to the deck below."

It's a deliberate attempt to blur my understanding of where and when the scene is happening, as a sort of PTSD effect. It works, and it might be a good thing in a story that doesn't already have an ambitiously large cast. As is, I'm still not sure of the full significance of the "Chah Bahar" battle that was so important to the characters, and was startled late in the story to find that Lenny had gotten this far without knowing Pawly is a were-cat. I mistakenly thought that Pawly vanished for nearly ten years after her first transformation, but instead she got beaten unconscious by her family (to snap her out of her "Rage"), joined the military, and only later vanished after Chah Bahar.

Another moment of puzzlement came in the same chapter as the "Ewelina" bit. The story was following Niko's group meeting new people, and I realized that I wasn't sure where Pawly and Hana were besides that they'd both been seen in the same general forest area. While I was trying to follow what was going on, the story jumped into a multi-scene flashback to a sea battle involving yet other characters. A more important flashback about Pawly's first transformation starts with only a blank line (not the symbol used in some places), fills the rest of Chapter 4, continues into 5, then returns to the present before 6. So, the story rapidly shifts between people and time periods and places without providing clear signposts such as chapters with names or time/place/POV headers.

Now, about the plot. As the back cover explains, there's "a feud between opposing werecat clans... that has raged for years". Late in the story we meet one of these clans, based in a Polish national park. Which is the opposed clan? I'm really not sure, since they were working with the Koreans for a while and Pawly's family expects to be welcome among them. What's the basis for the feud? Well, besides a grudge at centuries of mad scientists hurting the Polish tribe, Hana is angry about her parents having been killed, and Pawly is angry about her father's death. Maybe the opposing clans are Hana and Mawro versus Pawly's also-small family? All of these "Kindred" have a rule, "Harm not the Children of Affliction", but Pawly and Hana repeatedly fight with lethal force. Hana's first reaction to a threat, for instance, is to start chucking poison darts the size of crossbow bolts.

I would like to have seen more about the Kindred themselves, including the Polish tribe. There's some interesting background setting information here about a secretive group of "Afflicted" creatures with an international bond and creed. We don't get to spend significant time learning about them, though. I can't tell you how this "Rage" thing works, for instance.

What is the role of Pawly, shown on the front cover and starring on the back cover? If I unravel it in chronological order: She transformed unexpectedly as a teenager, offstage, and vanished for a while. She's then seen in one scene as a vigilante, but is rescued/kidnapped by her family that wanted her back. She then rides along with her family as they go to Poland, and becomes one of many people trying to guard/capture the box with the science equipment. What major decisions does she make or how does she grow as a person? What does she actually want? Would the main conflict have played out differently without her, since she's not present in most scenes? It seemed like she was a minor character.

What's at stake? Both sides want to conduct research into how this were-cat thing works. The bad guys already have special earrings to help them control their changes, but they're planning to deliver the stolen equipment to North Korea. Some of the support staff behind Hana and Mawro mention "Great Leader", but Hana and Mawro don't seem to care about helping North Korea and are only interested in the feline research. Kim's country doesn't play a role other than to get some American agents involved, on the theory that an advanced gengineering device would be dangerous in Kim's hands. Mawro's stated goal is "the path by which he could set his clan's course right" by researching the transformation. I'm not sure what that path actually *is*, though. There's a mention of the hope that the Polish cats will become able to leave their forest, but really they're capable of that already, especially if they can get the control earrings Mawro already knows how to build. What's the reason behind the whole "Masquerade" of hiding were-cats' existence? Fear on the part of the Poles. Nothing stated for Pawly and Hana's factions. It's the default assumption of an urban fantasy world where such creatures exist, and it's not really justified or questioned here. Both the US and NK governments know about the weres, for instance.

I fear that I've misunderstood the story, and that rereading the whole thing might help. Take my comments on confusion with a grain of salt, because Hurricane Irma and other distractions interrupted my reading. Even so, I rarely have this problem and did make an effort to flip back and reread some parts. I would like to see a revised version of the book that tries to limit the viewpoints, rearrange the flashbacks, indicate where and from what perspective each distinct section/chapter takes place, make it clear what exactly the villains are trying to accomplish, and give Pawly an important role if she's to be the main character.
  • Reading: Always Gray In Winter
  • Playing: Infra, Part 3
My new book "Perspective Flip" is on sale! (Cover art by Anatariva,… .)
This story collection is about transformation: people whose species and sex are changed by everything from advanced space colonization technology to a botched deal with the devil. The collection ranges from science fiction to fantasy, from serious to ridiculous, and focuses variously on the transformation itself or its aftermath.
If you're interested in other sorts of transformation, see my book "Mythic Transformations", which is still up for a free preview on Amazon's Kindle Scout site,… , where you can nominate it for Amazon to buy the rights. I've also got a kitsune themed story collection early in progress.
  • Reading: Roman History
  • Playing: The Long Dark